The evolution of writing

Daniel Duma, Co-founder and CEO at Scholarly

The creators of new ‘automated proofreader’ Scholarly believe their system could transform the way we write – beginning with academia. For co-founder and CEO Daniel Duma, the idea arose out of necessity…

Academic writing is painful. I discovered this the first time I had to face writing an essay as a 4th year undergrad on exchange in London. Outside of the English speaking world, the academic essay is mostly an esoteric art form that is the domain of researchers and academic hipsters. I had never seen anything like it.

There was all this hassle of keeping your paragraphs as tight conceptual units within the greater scope of your argument, with their own internal structure, then having to back up anything you said with what other people had said before and this absolute obsession with not using someone else’s words without attribution. Pile up on top of this dealing with the formatting, keeping to the strict word length, and writing in “the language of science” and you can see it was not an easy year. But I learned the system, and became a better writer and a better communicator because of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Now in academia, I was doing research and moving to Edinburgh to start a Master’s in Natural Language Processing, a mystical discipline born of the intersection of Linguistics and Computer Science. With a background in both, it was the obvious choice.

By this time I had written a number of papers and come to this realisation: no matter how many times you do it and how good you get at it, there are some tasks that never get any easier. You can only optimise your process so far. Searching for references is still hours of Google or JSTOR or PubMed or whatever your discipline requires. Useful references are still difficult to find using keyword search, come in awkward and bloated formats like PDF, and hide behind paywalls.

Structuring the document is often a slow iterative process. Thousands of words on a white canvas quickly become an indistinct waterfall of black characters, so proofreading is essential.

I started thinking that the things that never get any less painful are the mechanical jobs, those that require little to no creativity or critical thinking but a lot of hours of essentially hammering and shovelling text. There must be a better way.

In our collective history, we have gone from stone to papyrus, from printing press to typewriter and from there to computers, which now automatically check your spelling, punctuation, grammar, and to a certain degree, style. Why don’t they also check your structure? Why don’t they tell you: “It’s a very clever thing you’re saying there, but somebody said something similar before. Look, here’s a reference”, or “That paragraph has five different ideas in it – you might want to split it up, like this”? How about, “You need to get rid of 2000 words, so I suggest you cut this, this and this”?

The technology to do this is here already, but nobody has bothered to make it available. This knowledge happily sits on the PDFs of hundreds of research papers published in the last decade. They explain in detail how each of these problems has been solved in different scenarios; what was lacking was something that can turn this intelligence into a useful product.

This is precisely the task my co-founder Brian and myself have set ourselves with Scholarly. We want to use the technological know-how and wealth of knowledge resources of an increasingly interconnected world to augment the human capacity for written communication. We are starting with academic texts because this is what we know best, but all writing is communication, and all communication has structure. The same tools we are developing can be applied to crafting press releases and newspaper articles, reports and business plans, writing speeches and cover letters.

While no machine can substitute human creativity and the very act of communication as yet, both of these can be augmented and served by technology. We want to take this service further.

We have recently joined the ranks of the dotforge accelerator, a 13-week long programme of workshops and intense mentoring. The next step in the evolution of writing is here, and we want to be at the forefront of it. You can walk with us on our journey at www.scholarlyessay.com.

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